Brock Lesnar, The Royal Rumble, and the Art of Pissing Off Your Own Fans

I realized recently why I like WWE more than most other wrestling fans and don’t really enjoy AEW: I’m a bad person who enjoys seeing people get upset. AEW’s vision for wrestling is very positive, it’s inclusive, and it’s about pleasing their rabid audience, who are maniacally into every show and cheer loudly for all the wrestlers. This approach has a lot of upsides in terms of the “we’re all in this together” vibe of the promotion, and the way it’s been branded and marketed to this audience is part of why it’s been doing well for an upstart company. The downside is that it makes it hard to tell a story that authentically gets fans riled up in the way wrestling can. Sure, the company has some heels like MJF and Pac who will do villainous things, but because the underlying feeling about the company is so positive, I never get the sense that people are genuinely upset by their actions — they’ll boo and play along with the story because that’s “being a good fan,” but they’re not actually pissed because the company itself is portrayed as benevolent and caring, even within its own fictional universe.

This is a big contrast to WWE, which for a long time has portrayed itself as a heel company in storyline. Its hottest storyline ever involved Stone Cold Steve Austin fighting the boss, Vince McMahon, and recent storylines have involved similar demonic authority figures who meddle with the crowd’s favorite wrestlers. This approach has myriad downsides, and has probably cultivated the general feeling of resentment many fans have towards WWE, but it can also still be harnessed to tell stories that have an emotional weight that I’m not sure a company like AEW could quite pull off. The clearest most recent example was “Kofimania,” in which 11-year veteran Kofi Kingston finally got a chance at the world title that eluded him his whole career. He ended up jumping through hoops set up by Vince McMahon, who claimed he didn’t feel he was championship material, before finally winning the big one at Wrestlemania and then going on a lengthy Cinderella title run. But in the end, the clock struck midnight and it all came crashing down at the hands of Brock Lesnar.

This was one of WWE’s shrewdest meta-booking moves of the year, and it made fans legitimately irate. They hated that Kofi went on this long run only to be booked to get squashed by Lesnar in four seconds. They hated that Brock, who wrestles only part-time and has been portrayed as someone who hates wrestling and the fans, was champion again, which meant his title would disappear from TV. A segment of fans will still insist they hated it because it was “bad storytelling,” but they should learn that an unhappy ending isn’t always a bad one. This succeeded in making people hate Lesnar even more and it gained Kofi tons of sympathy because, once again, the company screwed him and didn’t see any value in him. If this match had gone on for 10 minutes with Brock winning, that emotion wouldn’t have been there — the feeling would have been that Kofi got a fair shot, it was a good title run, and everyone would have moved on with their lives.

Booking moments like this are part of why Lesnar is the best heel in wrestling. WWE has meticulously booked him like a god over the years, and he’s always there to crush the dreams of your favorite wrestlers with his stupid repeated German suplexes. His mouthpiece, Paul Heyman, is one of the best talkers in wrestling history and is the perfect guy to bloviate about his accomplishments to further piss off the fans. Fans believe in Lesnar because of his legitimate credentials (former UFC champion) and because he rarely shows much of his personality to the public. At a recent Minnesota Gopher wrestling event, Lesnar was a guest coach and was seen smiling and taking pictures with children, and it was jarring because the image of him seen on WWE — a ruthless beast who only takes pleasure in tormenting others and hates having to show up and wrestle — is so rarely contradicted anywhere.

This past Sunday, Lesnar decided to enter first in the Royal Rumble, and it answered the question many fans have about why WWE invests so much in him. The Rumble match is an annual favorite that involves 30 wrestlers entering the match one-at-a-time every 90 seconds until only one is left standing in the ring. Typically, the ring fills up with guys who sort of fake fight while one notable thing is happening at a time, but this year’s was different: with Lesnar starting first and vowing to eliminate everyone (his reasons were never outright stated, but presumably it was to prove his dominance and make children cry), this match instead became a series of dramatic confrontations, with a variety of wrestlers trying their hand at slaying the beast while fans speculated on who would be the one to do it. It was the best one of these matches I’ve ever seen and an example of WWE’s antagonistic storytelling method being executed perfectly.

This match is fascinating because the entire first half is WWE pissing off its own audience, and it’s just not something you see in any other storytelling medium. Lesnar starts in the ring and predictably throws out a series of wrestlers who aren’t portrayed as being close to his level competitively. These first eliminations (Elias, Erick Rowan, John Morrison and Bobby Roode) aren’t exciting to watch necessarily, but they create a context for the rest of this match, establishing that Lesnar is unstoppable and that eliminating him will be nearly impossible. So by entry #6, fans are getting a bit uneasy, wondering if anyone can take Lesnar down or if WWE is really going to book him to “bury” the entire roster.

At #6, Kofi Kingston comes out and it’s the first confrontation of the match that feels like a big deal due to their match months earlier. And as Kofi starts kicking the crap out of Lesnar for a few seconds and the crowd goes nuts, WWE’s booking of that match fully clicks for me, because I feel how desperately the fans want to see the likable face overcome the monstrous heel. Kofi is the first to survive the first 90 seconds and then he’s joined by Rey Mysterio, a legendary cruiserweight whose large adult son, Dominick, was assaulted by Brock months ago. 90 seconds later, they’re joined by Kofi’s tag team partner, Big E (who is big) and all three of the faces team up and go after Brock.

The fans are hyped for this trio to eliminate Brock, but he ends up eliminating all of them after a couple incredible spots that showcase his freakish athleticism. Then Brock eliminates the next few guys without much effort (Cesaro, Shelton Benjamin, Shinsuke Nakamura, MVP), giving the fans some time to breathe and continuing to build a sense of uneasiness in the room, a feeling that Brock might actually win this entire stupid match. At this point, I glance at Twitter and Reddit and just see fans yelling about how horrible the match is, how much they hate everything, etc. But this is exactly what WWE wanted them to be saying and the company is playing them like a fiddle at this point — this whole segment of the match is like a symphony of audience manipulation.

Keith Lee comes out next — he’s a massive, athletic star on the rise and was a popular pick to knock Lesnar out. Brock’s reactions to Lee are hilarious and the two behemoths go toe-to-toe. Because Lesnar has just been manhandling everyone in the match for so long, Lee looks incredible just for holding his own against him, and when he takes Brock off his feet with a shoulder tackle, the crowd goes crazy (think about that for a moment — the crowd cheered loudly for the most basic move in wrestling). The two collide mid-ring and are down when Braun Strowman, an even more massive man, joins the fray, so at this point Lesnar is exhausted and up against two giants. But when Lee and Strowman start fighting each other, Brock sneaks up and eliminates both, and the crowd totally deflates. You can feel them thinking “that was our chance and they just blew it.”

Ricochet, the pre-eminent flippy-doo wrestler of this whole generation of flippy wrestlers, comes out next, jumps right into Brock’s arms like an idiot and gets casually ragdolled into the corner. Then Drew McIntyre’s music hits and he comes to the ring looking like a guy from the cover of a romance novel and stares down his enemy. Brock focuses in on him and starts removing his gloves, knowing that McIntyre means serious business. But Ricochet comes to and kicks Lesnar in the balls, then McIntyre hits his signature “Claymore kick” on Brock and sends him toppling over the top rope.

The crowd reaction to this is something seldom seen — it was like their home team just won the Super Bowl or something, and I practically expected champagne to start popping. And it wasn’t a bunch of fans cheering because they love the WWE brand — it was because they legitimately, in real life, hate Brock Lesnar and were overjoyed that he was eliminated from this match that it was starting to look like he was winning. And now, just by kicking this large albino-gorilla-looking guy over the top rope, McIntyre (who has mostly been a villain in WWE) is instantly the most beloved face in the company. WWE brilliantly doubled down on this booking and ended up having McIntyre win the whole match about 30 minutes later, setting him up to face Brock for the title at Wrestlemania.

Brock Lesnar’s performance in the match was legendary — he was terrifying, brutal, and looked completely unstoppable. He’s so incredibly good at pro wrestling, but a lot of fans don’t realize it because they legitimately resent him due to how he has been booked and portrayed. WWE harnessed those negative emotions in this match and used it to create a new star in McIntyre, who had been previously directionless. This match was a perfect example of the give-and-take of wrestling storytelling and how context and build can create amazing moments. In order to feel as joyful and happy as fans did in that moment Lesnar was eliminated, they first needed to be really furious.

A Good Segment From Monday Night Raw, Which is a Good Show

I’m not sure if there is anything in other media quite like the relationship between wrestling fans and WWE’s flagship show, Monday Night Raw. Clocking in at three hours every Monday night, Raw is the most-watched wrestling show in the world despite the fact that seemingly everyone hates it. There is an entire industry now of YouTubers, podcasters, and social media personalities who build their entire brand around trashing Raw and dramatically talking about how TERRIBLE and SO BAD everything is, and it’s become something of a bizarre shared ritual where fans tune in to bitch about the writing, the wrestlers that are being pushed, the amount of talking on the show, and pretty much anything else anyone could possibly complain about. This sort of contrived “suffering fan” schtick is insufferable to me and it’s part of why I tend to keep my wrestling fandom guarded in public.

I’ve always enjoyed Raw, but often it’s been something like a guilty pleasure. I have a certain respect for the difficulty of putting on a 3-hour show every week for a fickle and tough audience, and if the show ever had major flaws (and boy did it ever), I usually would find them fascinating instead of frustrating. It provides a lot of analytical fodder, thinking of how they could have handled certain wrestlers, how they should be telling a story, what a segment was trying to accomplish that it didn’t, etc. One reason I recommend wrestling is that you get a really strong visceral sense of how storytelling works in real time, and sometimes there is a lot to be learned in watching WWE step in it. But lately, for a variety of reasons, Raw has become an actual good show, with what seems to be a more logical booking philosophy and plan for its main characters. And it turns out, it’s just as fun to analyze something that actually works.

One segment in particular on this week’s show captured the essence of what I think pro wrestling should be. To the surprise of nobody who is familiar with my scorching wrestling takes, it involves the best professional wrestler in the world, Becky Lynch. That is a bit controversial because most wrestling fans on the internet think being a professional wrestler means doing the most cool moves, flipping around the ring like a gymnast, and having self-indulgent 4o-minute matches that are designed to get “five stars” from hack wrestling journalists and “this is awesome” chants from fans who don’t care who wins. I’m part of a shrinking group of boomer fans who really love the non-match parts of wrestling, and I think a lot of the art in this business comes from talking, promoting, and making people actually give a shit about the match. Nobody is better at that than Becky Lynch.

Becky has run roughshod over the roster since winning all the gold in the main event of Wrestlemania this year, and as with any long title reign, it’s brought out critics who are sick of her push and think she’s a bad wrestler because she isn’t putting on the aforementioned nonsense matches with all the moves and flips. These people are wrong, they’re bad, and they deserve to be shunned from the wrestling community. Because even months into this reign, the crowd still loves Becky and she’s still evolving as a character, from an outlaw rebel who was defying the company to the self-admitted “golden goose” of WWE who now has to fight to maintain her individuality and desire for the toughest fights while being “protected” due to her value as a corporate spokeswoman.

The target for Becky is Asuka, the Japanese wrestler who beat her nearly a year ago at the Royal Rumble and has continued to have her number since. Becky’s story is that WWE didn’t want her to face Asuka, figuring she’d lose again and it would damage her marketability as “the face of the company.” Asuka is a mega-talented wrestler who doesn’t speak much English but still has tons of charisma, and she’s only lost a tiny handful of matches in her entire career. Lately she’s taken to spraying her opponents with “green mist,” and in this week’s segment she hit Becky with it after signing the contract for the match at this year’s Royal Rumble.

At this point, it’s worth observing that spraying green mist in people’s eyes is not something that people generally do, and it’s seldom seen in the real world. That’s part of what made this segment feel so definitively pro wrestling to me: it’s this ridiculous character trait that has been passed down in Japanese tradition (notably by The Great Muta, who Asuka cites as an inspiration) and it’s just this weird wrestling thing that exists and is accepted by fans. The reason it’s accepted is because of performances like Becky’s in this clip: of course we know wrestling is fake, and within the realm of fakeness the green mist is even faker, but she sells it seriously and believably as if it is incredibly painful. And because she is so damn good at this, and it’s presented without any irony or winking at the audience, fans actually believe now that this mist is a real dangerous thing, that Asuka can hit it at any time, and that the most pushed woman in the company’s title reign could be in jeopardy.

Then Becky demands a microphone and delivers a fantastic promo while recovering from the mist and looking into a camera that she is blindly swiping at with her hands.  Maybe it got a little too fanciful with its language, but I felt the emotion and the intensity, and it was from someone who just is their character, not someone who is playing a role and thinks of themselves as a performance artist. And now because of segments like this, I want to see the match and there’s a clear sense of stakes — Becky needs to win this match to prove something to herself and to get revenge on Asuka. All of this build-up is going to make their match at Royal Rumble feel bigger, the moves are going to mean more, and it will almost certainly be awesome, even though I don’t think either of these wrestlers has ever done a flippy move in their life.

This should be Pro Wrestling 101, but the current landscape is polluted with an “everyone knows wrestling is fake so nobody will care about anything so why should we even try” mentality where everyone just does outlandish goofy crap and winks at the audience. I can’t even go to indie shows because all of them feature so much dumb nonsense on the card, and WWE’s competitor, AEW, continues to struggle at telling stories that have any real sense of gravitas or stakes like this one does, despite the ridiculousness of the green mist. So, bizarrely, Monday Night Raw, the punching bag of fans, is my favorite wrestling show right now and the one that I think has the most talent and a philosophy that makes me want to watch.

A Dispatch From the Wednesday Night Wrestling Wars

The most polarizing character in wrestling right now is Orange Cassidy, a comedic character who performs in the ring as if he just woke up from a hangover and has no interest in anything that is going on. When he enters the ring, he lightly kicks his opponents in a parody of the typical “babyface fire-up” in wrestling, when the heroic character regains their strength and starts hitting all of their impactful moves. Fans react with ironic shock at Cassidy’s “brutal violence,” and it’s generally been a popular gimmick that taps into the type of ironic comedy and memes that are currently popular with the youths.

While Cassidy is a minor player in All Elite Wrestling, the upstart promotion that just began airing a weekly TV show called “Dynamite” a few weeks ago, I increasingly think he is the litmus test for potential fans of the company. AEW stormed onto the airwaves on TNT with a wave of momentum from fans who are fed up with WWE’s monopoly on large-scale American wrestling and its various frustrating creative and booking decisions. However, in a few weeks, AEW has lost hundreds of thousands of viewers as potential fans tuned in and lost interest. I’m one of those who has eventually tuned out, and Cassidy is emblematic of the reasons why.

It’s not that Orange Cassidy is necessarily unfunny — it’s that he represents a flaw in the core of AEW’s DNA that makes it impossible for me to enjoy it as a fan of wrestling. Even though wrestling is fake, I think it is at its best when it feels real and it taps into authentic emotions and makes people feel invested in the winner of the match. Maybe that sounds like a silly notion if you don’t watch wrestling, but think of it like any other form of entertainment. If you read or watch  The Lord of Rings, of course you know that the world is fictitious, that hobbits and wizards and orcs don’t really exist. But it is still presented as a world with its own set of rules and logic, which combined with serious storytelling makes you still feel an attachment to the characters. Once you’ve suspended your disbelief in this way and gotten caught up in the world, storytelling moments like Gandalf’s “death” generate emotional reactions that are very real, even though he is a fictional character.

The massive problem I have with AEW that I haven’t really seen discussed much (most hardcore wrestling fans and critic types love this show) is that it has absolutely no suspension of disbelief, in part due to the comedic hijinks of a character like Orange Cassidy, whose entire gimmick and humor is based on knowing that what you’re watching isn’t real. But it goes beyond Cassidy: because the show is aimed at the young male wrestling fan who knows the ins and outs of wrestling shows, it plays constantly to that base with insider jokes and winks at the audience. The matches themselves don’t feel real either, even for the standards of pretend fighting — a lot of the matches in AEW are more like choreographed gymnastics displays, with the clear goal being to “put on a great match” instead of trying to win or hurt your opponent.

AEW’s champion, Chris Jericho, is one of wrestling’s greatest performers, but over the run of the show his character has become increasingly goofy and silly, with promos that more closely resemble bad SNL sketches or improv routines than the classic style of wrestling promo that I love. Instead of building conflicts based on emotion and real-life feelings, his segments are increasingly focused on props and jokes, and because he is funny, fans don’t desire to see him lose the way they should with a heel champion. Even when Jericho gets booed by the fans, it’s obvious that they’re playing along because “this is a good heel promo,” not because they actually hate the guy and want to see someone beat him.

Another potential star, Jon Moxley, left WWE right before the launch of AEW and talked a big game about how he was held back there creatively and was going to change wrestling once the shackles of the evil corporation were off him. What got me most excited about AEW was to see what this guy could do with more creative freedom and a chip on his shoulder. But it became apparent pretty quickly that he had no brilliant ideas: he just wanted to behave like a generic badass who walks through the crowd and loves violence while “wrestling” garbage deathmatches with contrived weapons that are in no way believable or entertaining, such has his indulgent, interminable match with Kenny Omega at their last pay-per-view. Moxley said he hated WWE’s “hokey shit,” but his match with Omega was the hokiest thing I’ve ever seen in wrestling with its use of mouse traps and other dumb weapons.

AEW’s women’s division has also been a massive problem, in part due to WWE having a monopoly on talent and in part due to AEW being run by a bunch of guys who don’t seem to care much about telling stories in the division. Its champion, Riho, weighs about 95 pounds and wins all of her matches with sneaky roll-ups. Undersized heroes will always be a thing in wrestling, but Riho doesn’t even seem to have a mean streak or a switch she can hit where she starts kicking ass. She’s portrayed as completely sweet and innocent, someone who would never hurt a fly, which is boring in a wrestling context where I want to experience some catharsis in a staged fight. So just the idea of this demure character being the best women’s wrestler in the company is another of the many things reminding you of how fake AEW is.

Further damaging AEW was WWE’s ruthless and frankly evil decision to put its “NXT” show head-to-head with AEW by switching to a two-hour cable format. And it’s formed an obvious contrast with AEW by taking itself seriously with high-level performers and a logical storytelling flow week-to-week. To me, the breakout star on NXT since its move to cable has been Rhea Ripley, and she has also served to expose many of AEW’s flaws. She is everything missing from AEW: a wrestler who is serious, has star power, looks and acts legit, and the fact that she’s a woman has only further turned a spotlight on the clown show that is the competition’s women’s division. While AEW’s champion barely looks like she could hold her own in a fight, Ripley gives off the vibe that she’s going to rip someone’s head off at any moment. There is intensity and emotion in Ripley’s performances, which are a far cry from the bland choreography in AEW. She’s now set to take on long-reigning women’s champion Shayna Baszler in a match that feels much bigger than anything AEW has offered.

Baszler is her own contrast to AEW and its champion. While Jericho has been putting on interminable promo segments that seek to “entertain” and make people laugh, even though he is a heel, Baszler is no fun whatsoever. She’s a mean, sadistic bully, and she’s held the title for so long and is so ruthless that fans are becoming desperate to see someone knock her off the mountain. And since NXT has an incredibly talented women’s division, fans get to speculate and hope that one of their favorites can be the one to dethrone Shayna. That’s just classic heel wrestling psychology, and that’s what I find fun in wrestling more than segments that are desperately trying to be clever. Even though the fans of NXT are aware of a lot of the behind-the-scenes information, they buy into Baszler because she is believable and serious, and everyone is emotionally invested in seeing who can beat her.

I feel a little bad for these opinions, because the truth is I wanted an alternative to WWE, and I like that AEW exists to push them a bit instead of letting them become complacent. At the same time, I’m not going to watch a show I don’t like because “it’s the right thing to do,” and I also don’t believe WWE is evil and AEW is some virtuous company when both are run by billionaires, who are all inherently horrible. For all of WWE’s faults, they still deliver storytelling that has more emotion and takes itself more seriously than AEW, which seems to lack the confidence to do anything without winking at you and reminding you that it’s all just for show. That might appeal to certain fans of irony and memes — the people who love Orange Cassidy — but it doesn’t speak to what I think pro wrestling can be.